Before Moses came to his third request, he had achieved what he really wanted to achieve. As the leader of the people, he was very concerned that God go with him, and God said He would. But Moses isn’t quite satisfied. He is a remarkable man, and all the remarkable characteristics of this man come forward now. He recognized that he needed to know God, and what he had prayed for earlier, although God had promised to bless and teach him His ways, wasn’t quite enough. What Moses really wanted to see was the glory of God.
Another hymn, “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare,” written by John Newton, says, “Thou art coming to a King, large petitions with thee bring.” Moses knew something about the greatness of the God he was serving, and so he comes with the greatest request of all: “Now show me your glory” (33:18). As God’s answer makes clear, this was nothing less than a request to see God face-to-face in all His splendor, to see Him unobscured by the cloud that was over the mountain. Moses must have communed with God in what we would call “the dark,” or by a burning bush. He didn’t want that. He wanted to see God face-to-face.
God replies that he wouldn’t be able to show His face to Moses because no human being can see the face of God and live. But God did say that He would reveal His goodness and proclaim His name to Moses, and that He’d do it by putting him in a cleft of a rock, covering the opening with His hand, and then causing His goodness to pass before him.
There is a small apparent contradiction here. When God said to Moses, “No one may see me and live,” perhaps you remember Exodus 24:10, where the elders were said to have seen the God of Israel. That seems to be a contradiction, but it’s only so on the surface. If we go back to Exodus 24:9-10 and read the description of what they actually saw, what we’re told is that they saw something like a pavement made of sapphire under God’s feet. In other words, something of the cloud was removed. They looked up and saw the floor of heaven. They didn’t actually see God face-to-face. What God says to Moses is consistent. When Jacob wrestled with God and said, “I have wrestled with God,” it wasn’t the undisclosed glorious God in heaven that he wrestled with. He probably met with a pre-incarnate form of Jesus Christ—Godhead veiled in human flesh. When Isaiah had his great vision of God, whose glory filled the temple, he didn’t see God face-to-face, but the revelation of the glory of God.
Now, although God had told Moses that he couldn’t grant his request literally and fully because no one can see Him and live, He did nevertheless grant it in substance by giving Moses one of the greatest revelations of Himself that you find anywhere in the Bible. God begins by announcing what He is going to do in verse 19: “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Then He put Moses in the cleft of the rock and covered him with His hand until He had passed by (see Ex. 33:21-23). Exodus 34:5-7 describes the actual revelation of God to Moses:
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.
This revelation by God to Moses unfolds the meaning of His name, which is Yahweh, and that revelation tells what that name really means. This revelation is so important that verse 6 is quoted again and again throughout the Old Testament (see, for example, Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). It sums up the essence of God’s name, and since the name of God sums up the character of God, it’s a way of saying that who God is and what God is like is far more important for us than to see God physically.
How do we find out what God is like today? Well, we do it by studying the Bible. That’s where God has revealed Himself. Even now, that’s what we are doing. We study this revelation to Moses, but this revelation to Moses comes to us in writing in the Old Testament. That’s how you learn about the character of God today.
God’s revelation to Moses vividly shows that it is far more important to study the Bible than to have visions. Moses thought that what he wanted was a vision; he wanted to see the face of God. God said he could not have that, but as the LORD passed by, He let Moses hear the voice of God. We must study the Bible to find out what God is really like.
Moses already had a revelation like that. When God appeared to him the first time in the burning bush, He revealed His name: I am who I am (Ex. 3:14). This event revealed something of what theologians call God’s incommunicable attributes, that is, the characteristics that are so much a part of God being uniquely God that He cannot communicate—or share—these attributes with us, such as His self-existence, self-sufficiency, and eternity. None of us has those characteristics, nor can we. It’s true that God gives us eternal life, but we’re not eternal beings, because there was a time before we existed. We certainly are not able to sustain ourselves. We are not self-existent or self-sufficient. We need God and His provision every single moment. If God ceased to provide that, we would all be gone in an instant.